Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

A White Christmas Two Months Late

February 12, 2008

What: Mid-winter ryokan getaway trip
Where: Seiryuusou ryokan, Shimonita, Gunma Prefecture (about 3 hours from Shinjuku station)
When: Saturday February 9 to Sunday February 10, 2008
Why: Thaw out, eat, wash away the grub of Tokyo

The food:
In general, the food was unpretentious and featured local ingredients native to the region – big, thick, sweet green onions, mountain animals and konnyaku (a kind of jelly made out of potatoes). I am not a huge fan of konnyaku – but having konnyaku sashimi was delightfully unexpected. Of course, a winter dinner would not be complete without nabe. In this case, it was inoshishi (boar) nabe. In addition, under the recommendation of the owner, we ordered the seasonal special: deer sashimi. This meal was not PC, and was only for one who can handle game meats.
Breakfast was modest (we were baffled by the lack of a fish dish) but alive with local ingredients. Most notable, for me, was the natto – the beans were firm and the taste robust.

The onsen and atmosphere:
There were two onsens – indoor and outdoor. The indoor bath was made completely of wood – therefore, no ugly tiling or slippery rubber. With a huge window overlooking a frosty river scene, I knew I would have to savor the soaking for all the times that I am and will be sitting on the seventh floor of a building in Ginza.
The outdoor bath was breathtaking. After indulging in the ryokan’s homemade sake brew, I hung out in the outdoor bath. With fine flakes of snow landing on my face and the rest of my body happily engulfed in hot onsen water, I was convinced the Japanese were geniuses at the art of vacationing.

Places like Kyoto and Hakone are beautiful, but the more I live in Tokyo, I realize that Japan is full of treasures without the crowds.

Deer Sashimi
The dinner, with inoshishi nabe (top middle), konnyaku sashimi (top right)

Breakfast natto

Frosty beautifulness

Entrance to Seiryuusou

Spill a Little

February 5, 2008

Buying bulk is like sex without a condom. There’s nothing between you and the food, no plastic, no obstruction. Grab a little, taste a little, spill a little and push your way to the front.

During my lunch break on Monday, I set out to Tsukiji (like I do at least once every two weeks). I passed by a store selling mounds of bulk tsukudani. Tsukudani is heaven on rice – a condiment usually brown in color, sweet and sticky. It can be seaweed, clams, tarako, walnuts, even unagi.

The lady urged me to take a pinch of each kind for tasting. My suspicions were true – they were all good. But I had to restrain myself – I could not return to work smelling like I had just feasted on a full-course New Year’s breakfast. The lady then told me that the shijimi (clams) type was superb for takikomi-gohan*. I could add about 100 grams of this stuff to about 3 cups of rice in the rice cooker and… “viola!” shijimi-tsukudani-takikomi-gohan. Mmmm. So I bought 100 grams for 300 yen. I’ll be staying in this weekend.

I also bought 100 grams of fine fishies tsukudani at 200 yen (I don’t know what the real name is), this would probably be excellent just as is on rice – or irresistible as ochazuke (pouring tea over rice).

Here’s to pouring and spilling.

Shijimi tsukudani

Fine fishies tuskudani

*Editor’s note: takikomi-gohan is rice steamed with whatever ingredient you want! Usually mushrooms, or some vegetable, or this tsukudani, as Yoko talks about here. Hearty fare for cold winters.

Shabu Shabu Heaven in Hakone

January 17, 2008

While I was in Tokyo, we went down to Hakone. Hakone is sort of like Hamptons for New Yorkers. About 90 minutes from Tokyo, easy getaway, and instead of ocean, there are tons of onsens (hot springs).

Ryokans (traditional inns) are famous for their 13 course dinners, which you eat in your room. It’s prix fixe and we were fed till we couldn’t move, but conveniently we were in our own room so we could just collapse after we finished.

Our menu included bunch of small kaiseki style appetizers.

Top left, mini chawan-mushi (sort of egg pudding, with shrimp and chicken inside), top right is sweet pine nuts. Front items are not that memorable, but the one on the left was something I have never eaten in my life.

It was chestnut cooked in VERY strong coffee. You think it tastes like dessert, right? But being an appetizer, it was bitter from the coffee, and subtlely sweet from the chestnut. It was such a shocking yet refreshing flavor.

Of course the main course was shabu shabu. Look how beautiful these guys are! The Japanese cow raising business is an art form. If I get reincarnated, I would want to be a cow in Japan. Drink beer everyday, getting a belly massage every day, what more do we want, right? It totally melted in my mouth like butter. I don’t want to eat it everyday, but it’s the best!

What I Ate in Tokyo – Onihei in Asakusa

December 16, 2007
Professor A took us to a restaurant in Asakusa called “Onihei”. The food was very very good. Small tatami room in the back, a counter in the front, where perhaps 5 to 6 people can sit. Reservation a must.

Run by a woman who does EVERYTHING. She does not even have any waiting staff. According to Professor A, she was an OL (office lady) and really wanted to start her own resturant. She took courses, learned the trade and opened the restaurant many years ago. Professor A has been going there for a long time. Well, English is not spoken, so, if you want to go, please go with a Japanese speaker. It also looked quite discreet from the outside, just a plain door.

Persimmon with something mayonaisey inside
Preserved egg yolk
Little fish with white radish
Other stuff I don’t remember
Sashimi all the way

Housemade ankimo, baby (monk fish liver- my favorite!)

Can’t remember what it was. With shrimp inside- it was good.

Iso no kaori tappuri (literal translation: full of seashore aroma!)
Tempura with shrimp, veggies, and nori
Duck wrapped naganegi (japanese scallion)

Shimeji (mushroom) rice

Grilled oysters

La noche a Asakusa

Address 3-5-1 Asakusa
Taito-ku, Tokyo
Telephone +81-03-3874-7765

Probability Out of 10 I Will Eat this Animal Again

October 23, 2007

After hearing this NPR story about the last horse slaughterhouse in the US closing, I thought to myself ARE there such things as horse slaughterhouses in the US? Growing up in California, certain animals seem to be OFF limits, meaning, animals included in “Save the insert animal – usually a mammal with pretty eyes – here” series. In the 80s we saw “Save the Whales”, “Save the Manatees” and “Save the Sea Turtles” to name a few. Anyone caught killing these animals were seen as individuals equally appalling to those listed on the National Sex Offender Registry.

Of course, I am not advocating the clubbing or the brutal treatment of any animal (and my diet rarely consists of animals with legs), but my eyes have been opened to just how brainwashed I was as a westerner. Take eating whale, for example, as an American, this is atrocious and barbaric – insensitivity and carelessness rated on a high scale.

Yet, after living in a country that has been eating whale for thousands upon thousands of years, it doesn’t look as reckless. Something like the headline “Japan and Iceland refuse to give up their right to eat whale,” makes the people of these two countries look like ravenous killers who indulge in unnecessarily gluttonous practices. When in fact, communities have depended on the industry of whaling for thousands of years, and if they had been oblivious to the currents, migrations and breeding patterns of the whales, they’da been gone way before America was there to school the world.

That said, this might just be my argument for feeling better about eating the following foods I would probably never get to eat in America (or announce that I did too loudly in America, especially California):

Kujira – Whale (barbequed whale-steak on a grill)
Setting: Last Saturday at a outdoor BBQ for a friend’s birthday in Shimokitazawa, brought by my Icelandic friend Arnar.

Verdict: Like a perfect combination of T-bone steak and lamb. There was definitely a gamey essence to it – perhaps an aftertaste of grass or some kind of ruffage.

Probability out of 10 I will eat this animal again: 10, the first taste sparked my interest in trying whale prepared in different ways.

Basashi – Horse sashimi (thinly sliced raw horse meat)
Setting: Town izakaya during a festival in Koenji, ordered because my friend Kishi visiting from SF, had one thing on his list of things to do in Tokyo – eat horse.

Verdict: Quite heavenly – like sashimi in 4 dimensions. Again, it gives off a gamey scent that I can’t quite pin point.

Probability out of 10 I will eat this animal again: 8, I wouldn’t order it – it’s actually quite delicious but it’s a bit intense psychologically. However, it’s probably gonna be hard to avoid given that this is pretty common most Japanese-style restaurants.

Suppon – Snapping turtle soup
Setting: Chinese restaurant in Hatagaya. I reviewed this visit here

Verdict: A bit too knuckly for my taste and the meat was extra chewy and dense. I was told it’s good for you when you get sick and I believe that.

Probability out of 10 I will eat this animal again: 3, I am not into knuckly things. I would however, happily indulge in Suppon broth.

Judging by how exciting these culinary delights were, I hope this list grows…

Onsen Report

August 4, 2007

Despite the year’s first and hardest raining typhoon hitting on the same day as the first day of our one-night onsen trip to Yugawara, we got to the ryokan in one piece (after a lot of wrong turns – Japanese maps do NOT help in any way, also given that they don’t name the goddamn streets here. It’s better to ask the man who’s frying up chicken nuggets at the rest stops – all of them.)

I don’t know if it’s because I am getting older or getting lazier, but rolling around on a tatami mat, taking an onsen bath (hot spring) every few hours and eating epic 3-hour meals in your room is so my idea of the best way to vacation. This particular spot had both public and private baths. The private baths were superb (out on the veranda-ish with a wooden roof).

Anyway, my report comes in the form of pictures, as usual.

The toro here was amazing. I spread it out through the meal – saving it for moments when I felt like melting and dying. One of the very very unfortunate discoveries I made since living in Japan is that I am allergic to uni – sea urchin. I used to not be – but only would eat it once a year in bottled (cooked form). Then about half a year ago I ate a huge helping at Tsukiji for lunch after discovering I really loved it. This, I think, triggered an allergic reaction in me and I have since tried uni (cooked and uncooked) three times – just to make sure. And paying the price every time…

Fried Hamo – Hamo is a white fish. This was delicious and was also something I spread out through the meal. But much to my dismay the last bit I had to leave behind because I had filled my stomach beyond the tj maxx. (NOTE: the images here reflect less than half of what was actually served. I was distracted by the array to take photo ops every time a new morsel arrived).

This was the most artful edible that night. I had had enough shochu, however, to mistake it for matzo ball soup when the nice lady brought it to the table – upon which I had to explain to my unexposed-to-most-things-Jewish Japanese eating mate aka boyfriend what the hell I was blubbering about.

“Huh?” yeah, that’s me BEFORE the full Asian-people-get-red-in-the-face-when-they-drink effect. The room was beautiful, as you may or may not be able to tell from this photo.

Drinks: there was before-dinner japanese sake (served in the tiny cups in the foreground), my oolong-hai ingredients (this is what I drink here in Japan – shochu with oolong tea), beer, and the shochu bottle.

Yuzu sorbet. This reminds me, after reading the last Umami post, I’ve been praying for Pinkberry to make it to this side of the pacific.

Nothing like Japanese style breakfast. It settles the heart.

I don’t like raw squid but this was much too photogenic not to take a picture of.

Fujireien (Mt. Fuji Cemetary) 富士霊園

July 3, 2007

In Japan, 49 days after one dies, their loved ones bring their cremains to the gravesite. It was a beautiful day for a beautiful life – and one more Kumano was laid to rest.

After hearing prayer from a bald man in the burning sun over my father and my grandfather, we went to the annex (別館)to the main cemetary building where a private room was set up for a midday meal.

I wish I had photographed the barley tea that came in glass bottles, you know, like the ones that Coke used to come in.

The meal involved an array of sea creatures and local veggies. Not too heavy – it was just right for the mid afternoon. To me. My dad would’ve rather ordered a Big Mac and a side of fries. He hated kaiseki. Ha!

My baba-chan at the entrance of the annex room. 熊野 – That’s Kumano (our last name)

The meal in its entirety.

My fear of snails prevented me from eating the little guy in the middle. I gave him to my grandma.

Yuba County

March 26, 2007

Over the weekend, I spent some time in Nikko which is about three hours away from Tokyo. Most people go for the gaudy shrines – wooden and painted in bright red and gold reflecting Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s glory. Anyhow, the weather wasn’t very agreeable – so there was nothing else to do except…EAT!

Turns out, this place is famous for yuba or tofu skin. No complaints here as this is one of my favorite foods – and within the top 5 things I miss the most when in the States.

-yoko in tokyo

Pictured top right Yuba soba – buckwheat noodles with two types of yuba – in a roll and in flat layers. Absolutely delicious as the noodles were also handmade at this shop. 700yen (about $6)!

Pictured below Yuba shabu shabu – yuba hot pot. Throw in yuba and veggies into a clay pot full of soy milk – absolutely wonderful. 2,500yen (about $20+).

White Day

March 14, 2007

A month ago, if you asked me what I thought of the Japanese system regarding Valentine’s Day I would have given two enthusiastic thumbs DOWN. The first two weeks of February are madness. Pretty little Japanese girls swarm the streets and consequently, the department stores, in search of the perfect overpriced box of chocolates for their boo and other less overpriced boxes for their coworkers. On February 14, the girls get nothing, and the guys sit back and enjoy the benefits of all the gift-giving.
I refused to participate in such shenanigans – until the two other women in my department approached me suggesting that we pool our piggy banks to purchase a little something for each of the male coworkers in our department. To be uncooperative was not an option. So, on February 13, we got 7 boxes for 600 yen. That broke it down to about a little over $10 for each of us. Not bad. And so February 14 was taken care of.

The “tradition” here in Japan goes, a month later there is White Day when the guys “return” the Valentine. In the workplace this means, the guys return chocolates to the women who gave them gifts a month prior. So this is where I say “meh, the Japanese aren’t THAT fucked up about Valentine’s Day.” Whereas the women in our office gave gifts collaboratively, the men individually give gifts to the women. So, little crispy bags of dainty chocolates from France and cake boxes galore! Pictured is what is left of my horde fest from yesterday. (Pierre Marcolini Chocolates, Satie Nama (Raw) Chocolates and L’Occitane en Provence soap)
-yoko in tokyo